Notes From a Small Conference, Part 2

The draft was supposed to be to my betas on April 1. Here we are on April 20, and it STILL hasn’t managed to get to them! So 100% of my brain power is focused on rewrites this weekend, in the hopes that I’ll have the edits done by tomorrow.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share more notes from the 2013 Rose State College Writing Conference. These are from a presentation given by David Morrell (who wrote, among many other books, Rambo). His website is 

His presentation last year was on point of view – specifically, when and how to use first person.

1.) If you’re a history addict like me, you’ll find this interesting:  the first person POV started in the late 1600s and early 1700s as “confessions” and “morality tales.” Writers were raking in the money by writing fictional confessions in the voice of real, executed criminals.

2.) Daniel Defoe was apparently the first writer to recognize the true value of the first person POV. It felt real; it put the reader right there alongside the narrator.

3.) By the time we get to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, writers were beginning to explore the idea of the unreliable narrator. James apparently said the only way to truly write in first person was to know if your protagonist is an egotist, just delusional, or a liar. Everyone has their own viewpoint; we all have a point of view that is exclusively ours.

4.) Fitzgerald uses the first person POV a little differently, as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both authors used the first person POV — Nick Carroway and Dr. Watson, of course — but neither narrator was the true protagonist of the story. They were on the periphery, telling the story of someone else.

Morrell said that he believes most writers use the first person POV in a “naive fashion;” it’s objective, it’s true, it’s factual. No deceit is intended, and none happens. But life isn’t really like that; we all have an agenda. We all tell the story a little differently. For a good example of this, go to a murder mystery weekend. No two people will have seen exactly the same thing. It’s the same principle when you’re writing in first person. Your narrator will not see everything going on.

Which brings us to point #5:  if you don’t have something built in as to why you’re using the first person, then maybe first person isn’t the right choice for you.

For example:  Morrell cited the use of first person in detective novels from the 30s and 40s. It gave validity to the story, because we knew the narrator was doing the investigation himself. Interviewing suspects and witnesses. Tracking clues. So when he came to a conclusion, we believed him. It might not have necessarily been the right conclusion, but we’d been there with him and we believed him.

So as a writer, Morrell said, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How will I get around natural suspicion of the narrator?
  2. What is the motivation for the narrator to tell us his story? Is he bragging? Trying to convince us of something? Seeking sympathy? Is this a story only the narrator can tell? He cited the example of Holden Caulfield; in the beginning of Catcher in the Rye, it’s implied that Holden is in a psychologist’s office, telling his story. That gives him a reason to be telling it, and a reason for us to be intrigued. Plus, we also know his tale is only the surface; there are things we may not get to know. Salinger uses satire to deflect what Holden really feels; it’s up to us, the readers, to see that and understand what he really means in those moments.
  3. Get to the point. Don’t gush over every detail.
  4. But — don’t use just sight, either! Just like with all writing, use all five senses. Make a 3-D experience for the reader. It may even be more important in first person than in third, because we should be seeing, hearing, sensing, touching, and tasting everything that they do.

Morrell recommended reading several books in the first person POV before you start trying it out, if you’re a beginner: Catcher in the Rye and The Turn of the Screw were two, along with nearly anything Wilkie Collins wrote. Once again proving that there are only two ways to become a better writer:  to write, and to read.

Off now to do one of those two things! 🙂

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